Tag Archives: Trials

prayer

Hymn #142: Sweet Hour of Prayer

prayer

The simple double long meter and the pounding rhythm of bum BUM, bum BUM, bum BUM, bum BUM make this an instantly recognizable hymn, as well as an easy one to learn to play. It’s not uncommon to enter a Latter-day Saint home and hear a child plunking this tune out on the piano. There’s nothing too tricky about it, which is fitting, because when you get down to it, there’s really nothing too tricky about prayer. We address the Father, we offer thanks for blessings received, we ask for further blessings, and we do so in the name of the Son. Amen.

It’s simple, and perhaps because it’s so simple, it’s easy to overlook. A child can pray, and sometimes after a lifetime of prayer, our prayers can feel rote and facile, like a child’s. “Thank you for this day. Bless us to be happy. Bless us to be nice.” We may catch our minds wandering during a prayer, and often, we may catch ourselves nodding off. Sometimes it’s difficult to make something we repeat so often into a meaningful act.

And make no mistake–our prayers are intended to be meaningful acts. When we pray, we address our Father and are called “from a world of care and bid… to [our] Father’s throne [to] make all [our] wants and wishes known.” Prayer allows us to remove ourselves from the world and stand before a loving Father who wants nothing more than to hear from us. He doesn’t want us to hold back. He wants to know all of our wants and wishes. He wants to hear from each of us, and often. We are to pray in good times as well as in “seasons of distress and grief.”

But if He is so anxious to hear from us, why doesn’t He begin the conversation, we may wonder. We may wonder why we never hear an audible answer to our heartfelt prayers. We may wonder why we bother with the futility of it all when it seems so meaningless and solitary. It’s an easy question to ask ourselves, and an easy challenge to our faith until we remember that it’s our faith itself that powers the interaction. Our faith is tested by being required to address a being that we cannot see or hear, but who is real nonetheless. As we exercise faith in Him, our faith is strengthened as we receive our answers through the confirming presence of the Holy Ghost. Our asking for blessings can often unlock favors the Father is only too willing to bestow on us but that are made conditional on our asking. “Thy wings shall my petition bear,” we sing in the second verse, “to him whose truth and faithfulness engage the waiting soul to bless.” We are waiting for the promised blessings of prayer, yes, but He is also waiting for our prayers so that He can provide those promised blessings.

He wants us to pray. He implores us. We are asked over and over to pray, whether in our church meetings, in scriptures, in counsel from our leaders, in teachings from our parents and family, and so on. And we are counseled to do so not merely on occasion, but to do so as a way of life. We pray always, hoping that by drawing nearer to the Lord, He will draw nearer to us. And He does so, just as He has promised. When we feel His love come as an answer to prayer, even if we don’t see His face, hear His voice, or feel His presence, our faith is strengthened, and our desire to pray increased a day at a time.

And since he bids me seek his face,
Believe his word, and trust his grace,
I’ll cast on him my ev’ry care
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

Image credit: “cold prayer,” flickr user Keith Riley-Whittingham. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Hymn #115: Come, Ye Disconsolate

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts; here tell your anguish.
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

I’ve got a firm testimony that sorrow and anguish are part of the mortality package deal. Between disease, aging, injury, and constant physical needs, living in these bodies of ours is a challenge. Then there’s agency, both ours and that of every single other person on earth, which creates the potential for so many people to make so many choices that negatively affect so many other people. Eventually, almost inevitably, life happens, and at some point each of us find ourselves wounded, weak, and weary.

Which means at some point in our lives, every one of us is the individual addressed in this beautiful, repetitive hymn. “Come,” we are told four times in three short verses. Come to the mercy seat, to the feast of love.

But why? What–or who–is there that beckons us to bring wounded hearts and anguish?

Here speaks the Comforter.

When first we “came unto Christ” in baptism, we were blessed with the companionship of the Holy Ghost. He reminds us of truths we know and restores our hope in Christ. He brings us peace amidst chaos and guidance in times of confusion. He, unsurprisingly, comforts us when we need it most.

Here see the Bread of Life.

As we listen to the Holy Ghost, we draw nearer to our Savior. We learn that He truly is the Bread of Life, as He once told His disciples: “He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve felt disconsolate. I’ve often described how I felt in those moments as hollow or even dead inside. At the time I knew something was lacking; in hindsight I can easily identify the missing pieces. Hope. Joy. Love. All the things that Jesus Christ promises with which to fill us if we come unto Him.

Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

When the doctor tells you it’s cancer. When the ultrasound shows something is not quite right with the baby. When the phone call comes because there has been an accident. When your husband tells you his love for you is gone. When you wake up every day alone in an empty house.

Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.

When you struggle against the stigma of physical disability or mental illness. When you encounter injustice in the workforce because of your race, gender, religion, size, or age. When you are bullied and belittled by people who should know better, who should treat you as a brother or sister. When you start to believe that this is how it is supposed to be.

Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.

While so many limitations may not be removed from our bodies and minds right away, the Holy Ghost can guide us to medical professionals who can best help us endure them well. While unkind and even downright evil people may not be removed from our paths, we can trust in a Savior who loves us and believed us worthy of the greatest sacrifice ever given.

We may not see a single hardship removed from our mortal lives. However, someday–some blessed day–we will fervently kneel at the throne of God and know, as we have ever known, that He will show us mercy and grace and love.

And we will be healed.

Hymn #241: Count Your Blessings

Count your many blessings; name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

“Count your blessings” is a bit of advice we often hear when we’re struggling with gratitude. Whether we feel entitled or abandoned, we sometimes end up with a warped understanding of the Lord’s role in our lives. When we feel entitled, we no longer feel that we need the Lord in our lives, believing that we have everything taken care of ourselves, thank you very much. And when we feel abandoned, we feel just the opposite–that the Lord no longer feels He has a need for us, leaving us to our own devices.

We are asked to consider the blessings the Lord has given us at these times, and are explicitly counseled to name them “one by one.” It’s not enough to think that the Lord has blessed us richly. We are instructed to consider specifically just how richly He has blessed us. We may consider the blessing of a loving family, a good job (or even any job at all), kind friends, modern conveniences, or simpler things like a pink and orange sunset, the sound of wind in trees, or a kind stranger sharing her cookie with you. (That was my blessing today.) When we deeply and individually consider the magnitude of the Lord’s blessings in our lives, we get a clearer sense of just how reliant we are on Him for our day to day existence. We are reminded that we cannot make it through life on our own, no matter how we try. Even the things that we tell ourselves are blessings we have bestowed upon ourselves, like our talents, our determination, and relationships we’ve built are in actuality gifts from the Lord. He endowed us with those gifts before we came to earth, and He placed us in situations in which we would be uniquely able to succeed. We owe all that we have and all that we are to our Savior.

When we do this, we will be surprised at what the Lord has done. It’s eye-opening to consider the breadth and depth of the blessings we receive daily. It’s staggering to realize just how pivotal a role the Savior plays in our lives. But what I think is truly surprising about counting our blessings is the total reversal in our outlook by doing so. Consider the second verse:

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings; ev’ry doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.

Solely by counting our blessings, we go from groaning under a heavy cross to singing–singing!–as the days go by. We learn humility and gratitude by counting our blessings, and those feelings are reflected in our lives in our joy. We can turn our suffering on its head by reflecting on our many, many blessings and wind up truly, genuinely happy. The blessings themselves and their scope are surprising, certainly, but perhaps more so is the transformation that comes as we consider them.

So when we count our blessings and name them one by one, our eyes will be opened. We will “see what God hath done,” not only in the ways He has already blessed our lives, but in the way He continues to bless us by altering and improving our attitudes. And as we do so, we will find ourselves surprised, and even singing, as the days go by.

Hymn #129: Where Can I Turn for Peace?

This is a favorite hymn of many, probably because we all have this feeling from time to time. Things are hard, things are difficult, and despite our best efforts, things don’t go our way. And we wonder, when nothing seems to be going right, where we can turn for a little comfort. Where can we find peace, especially when it seems like everything in the world is conspiring to make us feel so miserable?

We can always turn to our Savior. He is always there for us, the quiet hand to calm our anguish. What’s interesting about this hymn, though, is not the sentiment that the Lord will always  be there to comfort us. That’s hardly surprising. What’s interesting about this hymn is the notion that it’s never He who turns away from us. We are the ones who must turn to find peace, which suggests that at some point, we were the ones who turned away from peace. We are the ones who “with a wounded heart, anger, or malice… draw [ourselves] apart.” We are hurt, we are wronged, and we withdraw ourselves to be miserable. And then we cast about, wondering why it is that we can’t find peace.

This is not, of course, to diminish the struggles of those who find themselves turned from peace at every moment through no fault of their own. I’m not suggesting that the darkness of life can always be swept away with nothing more than a positive outlook. I’m not suggesting that the reason things are hard in your life is because you haven’t bothered to want to feel peace. But I am suggesting that more often than not, we are the ones who remove ourselves from the Lord and from the peace that He brings. And I am suggesting that we can turn back to Him to feel that peace once again.

He answers privately. When we turn back to the Lord, we often do so in prayer and yearning. We pour out our hearts to Him, desperate to feel some measure of comfort during a trying time. And He answers us, “reaching [our] reaching in [our] Gethsemane.” We don’t bleed from every pore, and we don’t take upon ourselves the sins of others in our dark times, but it’s no stretch to compare these moments of agony and straining to feel the love of our Savior to the moments when the Lord Himself felt most removed from His Father. We stretch out our hands to Him, hoping to feel something, anything in return. And He, having endured such trials Himself (and then some), cannot help but reach back. In fact, He is always reaching to us. It’s when we reach in our Gethsemane that we can feel His hand in ours. “Constant he is and kind,” we sing, and that constancy is reflected in the fact that He ever reaches out to us, wanting nothing more than to comfort us and bear us up.

We all suffer from time to time. Life is difficult. I know that, and you know that, and yet we still flounder during these times, struggling in vain to feel peace in our own lives. And in those times, the Spirit refreshes our memory, whispering to us, “Who, who can understand? He, only One.”

And so it is, and so we turn to Him in our dark times, the One who can make them light again. He is gentle, He is kind, and He will bring us peace, because He is filled with “love without end.”

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Hymn #127: Does the Journey Seem Long?

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Chances are that if you’ve been alive for virtually any length of time, you’ve found that life is hard. Things go wrong, and they do so often. Personally speaking, I’m sitting here with a mild headache caused by corn stuck in my teeth, my daughter is screaming and won’t go to sleep, I’m hot and sweaty, and I know I get to get up early to go try to resolve a whole snarl of problems at work. And compared to many people, my day was absolutely charmed. Sometimes, things just don’t go the way we’d like. That’s life.

And even if we recognize that suffering and unpleasantness is part of being alive, sometimes those minor bumps and scrapes can add up and begin to feel overwhelming.

Is your heart faint and sad,
Your soul weary within,
As you toil ‘neath your burden of care?
Does the load heavy seem
You are forced now to lift?
Is there no one your burden to share?

That last line cuts deepest. Each of us has our own burden to carry through life. My challenge is that I’m shy, and that makes going through everyday tasks difficult sometimes. For you, it might be a struggle with depression, or the too-early loss of a loved one. Everyone struggles, and that’s part of why we covenant at baptism to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. We do our best, and we’re able to help each other soldier on down the path of life. And yet sometimes, despite all that, we still feel alone during our trials. We feel as though no one can understand our pain, and that we don’t have a friend willing to lend a hand to help us back up.

This all feels like a buildup to a hackneyed poem about footsteps in the sand, but it feels cliche because it’s true. We may feel alone, but it’s at those times most especially that the hand of the Lord is stretched out to us:

Let your heart not be faint
Now the journey’s begun;
There is One who still beckons to you.
So look upward in joy
And take hold of his hand;
He will lead you to paths that are new.

His hand is always reaching out to us. He doesn’t take days off, and He doesn’t let His hand down when He doesn’t feel like making the effort. He is always there to aid us in our struggles, whether it’s through the comfort of the Holy Ghost, through the kindness of a stranger, the closeness of a friend, or even the tender mercy of your baby finally drifting off to sleep.

His hand is stretched out still. He is always there for us. And He is always there, yearning for us to come away from the paths we’ve wandered down and return to Him so that He can lead us to “paths that are new.” He wants us to come and be like Him. He wants to bring us to a place where we can, well, listen to the fourth verse and see:

A land holy and pure,
Where all trouble doth end,
And your life shall be free from all sin,
Where no tears shall be shed,
For no sorrows remain.
Take his hand and with him enter in.

If the journey seems long, and you and I can both attest to the fact that it often does, it’s only because the destination is worth struggling to reach. There will be no more suffering. There will be no more pain. There will be no more death, and we will live with our God and be His people. He himself shall wipe the tears from our eyes, for the former things are passed away. Yes, the journey seems long, but we don’t have to make it alone. There is One who is reaching out His hand to us; we can take it, and the path will be easy and our burdens feel light.

Image credit: “Lone tree north of the Island Thorns Inclosure, New Forest,” Jim Champion.

Hymn #43: Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded

Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded” is today’s hymn. The title alone evokes powerful imagery—the righteous city of God besieged by enemy armies, surrounded by attacking forces. And yet, Zion stands. Preserved by divine power, Zion stands in the face of overwhelming odds.

Zion stands with hill surrounded–
Zion, kept by pow’r divine.
All her foes shall be confounded,
Though the world in arms combine.

Scriptural prophecy speaks of Jerusalem being attacked by wicked nations immediately before the second coming of Christ. Certainly, as a church whose name includes the phrase “Latter-day,” we take interest in such prophecies. Much of the work we do as a church is to prepare the world for Christ’s second coming. And yet, as with many prophecies, the literal fulfillment is perhaps not the most relevant one.

While the literal city of Zion may in the future be surrounded, many of God’s children feel spiritually or emotionally surrounded today. We often feel that everything is conspiring against us, that the easy choice is never the right one, that we are constantly being worn down by the comments, crusades, and sometimes even cruelty of the world around us. Everyone seems eager to tell us that what we’re doing is wrong in some way, or to point out all the ways we could be better.

In the midst of all this, we have a hope-filled promise: God himself remembers us, and will not forsake us. Isaiah prophesied:

But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.

For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.

When we are beset by taunts, trepidation or trials, we can take comfort in this fact: the Lord is always with us. He will defend and sustain if we will trust in him. Of course, this does not always mean that our burdens will be light. Often, the burden remains heavy, but our ability to carry it is increased.  Our Father does not simply want to protect us as we are, spiritual infants. Rather, the whole purpose of his Plan is to help us develop the talents and abilities that are latent within us.

In the furnace God may prove thee,
Thence to bring thee forth more bright,
But can never cease to love thee;
Thou art precious in his sight.
God is with thee, God is with thee;
Thou shalt triumph in his might

So when you feel like surrounded Zion, with enemy forces on every side, remember this: God is with thee, God is with thee; Thou shalt triumph in his might.

Hymn #85: How Firm a Foundation

How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

This is a hymn that gets a lot of play time, and rightfully so. It’s upbeat. It’s uplifting. It’s got a whole bunch of verses so a ward chorister can easily add or subtract them to fill the time as needed.

And since it is so familiar, I’m not sure what new light I can shed on it. Undoubtedly you’ve noticed that most (and arguably all) of the verses were written from the Lord’s point of view. “I am thy God,” we sing in verse three, reminding ourselves exactly who it is we worship and what He has taught us.

And really, “what more can he say than to you he hath said?” Nothing in this hymn is new information. It’s in every book of the scriptural canon, in every General Conference report, in everything we do, for this is His church. He is our foundation.

A good portion of the lyrics here are either paraphrased or almost directly quoted from Isaiah (see chapters 41 and 43), so we get a hint of the Old Testament fire-and-brimstone Jehovah. “Fear not,” He commands His people, “Be not dismayed.” He will call them through deep water, rivers of sorrow, and deepest distress. There will be foes to face and even “all hell [may] endeavor to shake” them.

But, as a counterpoint to all these daunting demands, we are reminded that He is not only a just God who demands sacrifice and strict obedience. He is also a merciful and loving Savior–the Good Shepherd–who will succor, uphold, and sanctify His children. “In ev’ry condition,” He reminds us, “I am with thee…and will still give thee aid.”

Which isn’t to say things won’t be tremendously difficult. When Joseph Smith was confined for months in Liberty Jail with no reprieve in sight,  he begged in prayer to know why God seemed to have forgotten his people in their suffering. The reply, found in section 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants, shares the same message of this hymn in its entirety:

“And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7)

He freely admits there will be “fiery trials.” In fact, He knows exactly what they will be for each one of us. But, He instructs us, if we put our trust in Him, “The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design / Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

And that’s really the crux of it all. The last verse tells us with repetitive finality that if we build our lives with Jesus Christ as our foundation, we will never be alone and we will never fall. (see Helaman 5:12)

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, I’ll never, no never,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!

Hymn #121: I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger

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I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger
Cast upon the rocky shore
Of a land where deathly danger
Surges with a sullen roar,
Oft despairing, oft despairing,
Lest I reach my home no more.

A pilgrimage is a journey, often a long one, to a sacred or holy place. Often the financial burden of a pilgrimage is great, or the journey itself is difficult, or the pilgrim chooses to abstain from food for a period of time…sacrifice is usually involved in one way or another. Generally speaking, the purpose of any pilgrimage is to demonstrate faith and religious devotion.

In the context of this hymn, mortal life is the pilgrimage that each of us must take. We left our premortal home with our Father in Heaven to come to earth where exist both temporally and spiritually “deathly danger”. Verse two is anxiety-ridden, for life is treacherous and too many of our brothers and sisters never find their way home.

Misty vapors rise before me.
Scarcely can I see the way.
Clouds of darkest hue hang o’er me,
And I’m apt to go astray
With the many, with the many
That are now the vulture’s prey.

But let us not forget that a pilgrimage is not just a miserable experience designed to frighten and discourage us. It is a journey to a holy place that results in spiritual growth and enlightenment. Is that not why we came to earth? To have our faith and obedience tested? To see if we would do all things whatsoever the Father commands? (see Abraham 3:25)

We journeyed here to mortality on an earth created specifically for us. It has its problems, yes, but God himself declared it to be good (see Genesis 1). Even when the world is at its worst, this “rocky shore” upon which we have been cast is full of sacred spaces. The Wikipedia entry on pilgrimages is (surprisingly) eloquent on this point:

“Such sites [i.e. those visited by pilgrims] may be commemorated with shrines or temples that devotees are encouraged to visit for their own spiritual benefit: to be healed or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit.”

There are places and experiences like this for us throughout mortality. The baptismal font is a sacred place, as is the chapel where baptismal covenants are renewed each week. Temples are being built all over the world to provide refuge, revelation, and a source of spiritual strength. A father giving a priesthood blessing to a sick child, a young woman searching the scriptures for answers to a troubling question, any time the miracle of birth occurs…each of these are “shrines” of a sort that mark the path of our pilgrimage.

Every time we have a sacred experience, the place or moment where it occurs is sanctified, and the Holy Ghost reminds us that we are headed toward our heavenly home. When we go through stretches of life with few of these holy milestones, we can still draw strength from those we have passed and look forward with hope for the next one. And always, always, our Father is there to help us find the way.

O my Father, I entreat thee,
Let me see thy beck’ning hand;
And when straying, may I meet thee
Ere I join the silent band.
Guide me, Father, guide me, Father,
Safely to the promised land.

Eventually, if we continue in the strait and narrow way, each of us will complete our personal pilgrimage here and return to live with our Father in Heaven. We will make many sacrifices along the way, and we will face many hardships, it is true. But if we watch for them along the way, we will find many sacred reminders of where we are headed, and each holy encounter brings us ever closer to the promised land.

Image source
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Hymn #243: Let Us All Press On

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Ages ago, the king of Syria was troubled. He was at war with Israel, and despite his best efforts to kill the king of Israel, he was consistently able to sneak away from his assassination attempts. Convinced someone was leaking secrets to the enemy, the king of Syria asked his servants which of them was the mole. One answered and said that Elisha, “the prophet that is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber.” Convinced he knew how to gain the upper hand in the war, the king sent a huge military force to kill Elisha.

The prophet, for his part, seemed unconcerned about the massive army descending upon him, although his servant, arising early and seeing his city surrounded by Syrian soldiers, asked his master what they were going to do. Elisha said, simply, “Fear not: they that be with us are more than they that be with them.”

We will not retreat, though our numbers may be few
When compared with the opposite host in view;
But an unseen pow’r will aid me and you
In the glorious cause of truth.

Life is scary sometimes. We may feel overwhelmed and alone in our cause. It’s especially frustrating when the Lord, who has told us time and again that we can always depend on Him, isn’t plainly visible to our eyes. We do our best to trust and to believe, but faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges in front of us, we doubt, and we ask, as did Elisha’s servant, how the Lord expects us to cope.

And like this servant, we have wise people placed in our lives whose faith is stronger in the moment. (At other times, we may be the ones called upon to strengthen their faith. Sometimes our wounds are bound, and sometimes we do the binding.) Elisha, having told his disbelieving servant that the powers of heaven were close at hand, prayed that the Lord would “open his eyes, that he may see.” His eyes were opened, and he saw legions of heavenly defenders, ready to act at a moment’s notice.

We have our eyes opened from time to time as well. We get so wrapped up in a trial that we miss the fact that we have a loving family around us, or that we’re receiving financial, physical, or emotional blessings that prop us up during our struggles. The old story about the single set of footprints during the hardest times of life is a tired cliche, but there’s merit to the story. The Lord bears our burdens, and He’s always there for us, if we’ll but open our eyes.

And so, armed with that knowledge, we press on. The chorus of this hymn is particularly fun, as the soprano part diverges from the other three. I don’t often sing the melody at church, so I usually sing the counter part, which really enjoy. Listen:

Fear not, courage, though the enemy deride;
We must be victorious, for the Lord is on our side.
We’ll not fear the wicked nor give heed to what they say,
But the Lord, our Heav’nly Father, him alone we will obey.

It stuffs in quite a few more syllables, providing a nice contrast to the held-out notes of the soaring soprano part. Most of the words are the same, if in a different order, but last two lines have slightly different messages. The soprano part says that we won’t heed the wicked, but the counter part specifically says that we won’t fear them. That’s tricky when faced with the “opposite host in view.” We trust in our Lord, though, and that gives us hope, which drives out our fear.

If we do what’s right, we have no need to fear. We may be faced with difficult, and yes, frightening challenges in our lives, but we know that the Lord will ever be near. His angels surround us, ready to leap in and give their aid. “In the days of trial his Saints he will cheer,” we sing in the final verse. Not only is He ready to bear us up, but He knows when we’re struggling, and those are the days He is most ready to lend a hand. We need only to open our eyes to see the unseen power that aids us.

Image credit: “Red sunset,” Wikipedia user Fir0002, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Hymn #40: Arise, O Glorious Zion

Like most of the hymns about Zion, this one is bright, strong, and uptempo. We sing brightly, and we sing with conviction. We sing with power, and it’s because when we sing about Zion, we sing about the kingdom of God. Other hymns focus on the God’s attributes, like His kindness and mercy, but this is less about Him and more about the organization of His kingdom. We’re singing less about the Master and more about the walls of His city.

It’s not surprising, then, that the hymn has a distinctly military feel to it. There’s a strong quarter time beat driving the melody, which moves quickly with cascading eighth notes. The soprano and tenor parts go all the way up to E, which is pretty high for a hymn intended for a mass audience. Those high notes give the hymn a soaring feeling, which adds to the sense of disciplined precision that comes with the quick pace. The tune is even titled “Victory.”

Military imagery abounds in this hymn. We begin by describing the Lord as our “sure defender.” He protects us from sin and death through His atonement, but here, the image is not so much a gentle shepherd as an armor-clad warrior. He is strong, and He is capable of beating back the forces of evil. He is our captain in the war against sin, and His victory (and ours, if we ally ourselves with Him) is sure.

We take part in the war too, of course. The victory is His, and it was hard-fought, but we have our skirmishes to come through as well. The third verse details our role in the struggle:

Thru painful tribulation
We walk the narrow road
And battle with temptation
To gain the blest abode.
But patient, firm endurance,
With glory in our view,
The Spirit’s bright assurance
Will bring us conq’rors through.

The gospel message of enduring to the end is just as apparent as is the imagery of military discipline. We are soldiers, trained in the duty of the Lord. Like soldiers, we are to give total loyalty and obedience to Him. We walk a narrow road, following our orders with exactness, turning neither to the right nor to the left. We do battle with temptation, and we do so not only because we have been so commanded, but because we know there is a reward in store. And as we follow those commands with “patient, firm endurance,” we help to earn the victory over evil. We don’t simply survive the struggle, as is often our sense of enduring to the end. This hymn tells us that we will be conquerors. We will be victorious, and just as there is no question who is the conqueror and who is the conquered in the aftermath of a war, there will be no question which side has won the victory in the end.

In the fourth verse, we return to the familiar theme of singing praise to our King. We join with the “hosts of heaven,” singing glory to our Redeemer. Having already sung three verses with military fervor, it’s not hard to imagine those hosts of heaven lined up in neat rows, standing at attention. We unite our voices in perfect unison, singing as one the “immortal theme” of praise.

This is the goal, and the end of our faith and devotion. We aim to arrive here, capable of making our hearts and voices one with the saints. Zion is the pure in heart. We give our hearts fully to the Lord and without reservation. That’s not to say that there’s no room for individualism in Zion, and it’s not to say that we’ll act as a hive mind, but it does imply to me that we will have purified ourselves (or, rather, have been purified through the cleansing power of the atonement) to the point where we can act and love as the Savior does. John told us that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” We will see Him through His own redeeming love. When we can do that, we will be numbered among the pure in heart.

That’s the end goal, anyway. It’s still a long way off, and we have a lot of steps yet to cover in that journey. But this fourth verse reminds us of the end we’re striving for, and gives us a glimpse of the time when we can join with the hosts of heaven and sing glory to him “whose blood did us redeem.”

Hymn #99: Nearer, Dear Savior, to Thee

Nearer, dear Savior, to thee,
Nearer, nearer to thee–
Ever I’m striving to be
Nearer, yet nearer to thee!

A few years ago, I sat next to a new father on a flight to California. He was feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility fatherhood brings. He worried he did not know how to raise a child to be a good, moral person. With so many perils and distractions in the world today, how could he teach his son to know what was right? How could he even know what was right himself?

We were flying out of Salt Lake City, so I wasn’t surprised when he asked if I was a Mormon. I replied that I was, indeed. He then asked me something I’ve considered numerous times since:

What are the principles that guide your religion? What tenets does your religion provide?

My initial inclination was to share the Articles of Faith; I’ve heard of similar situations since I was in Primary, and that always seemed to be the appropriate response. I started down that path, but quickly saw that these were not the answers he was looking for. He didn’t want to know how my religion was different from other religions, and he didn’t really want to know what I believed—he wanted to know how my religion guides my life.

I wasn’t sure how to give him a succinct answer at the time. There is so much we are counseled to do, so much that we believe. How should I shrink it down into one or two guiding principles? Is service the key? Charity? Scripture study? Prayer? Family Home Evening?

Honestly, I don’t think I gave him a very useful answer. I bounced between a few topics, hoping to find one that resonated with him, but I never really struck the right chord. It bothered me; I felt like I should have a solid answer to a question as fundamental as this one.

As I’ve considered this topic since, I would now give a different answer:

My religion teaches me to be like Jesus Christ. I study his life and his teachings, and I try to do what he would do. I try to live so that every day I am a little closer to Him.

When I read the words to this hymn, this conversation I had years ago kept coming to mind. Fully half the lines in each verse are some variation of the phrase “Nearer, dear Savior, to thee.” There is something important to this topic, one we should not pass over lightly.

What does it mean to be near to the Savior? Perhaps it means that we quickly and consistently turn to him, and rely on him in times of need. When temptations arise, when frustration, disappointment, or tragedy come upon us, do we turn away from the Savior and rely on our own strength? Or do we choose to draw nearer to him, seeking his peace and comfort?

Perhaps, nearness to the Savior refers to our emulation of him, however imperfect. Do we do what he would do? When others observe our actions and behavior, do they see an approximation of Christ to some degree? Do we try to do what he would do? Do we think what he would think? Are we, as the Primary song suggests, “following in his ways?”

Maybe nearness to the Savior is about our relationship with Christ. The scriptures refer to him as our Savior, our father, our teacher, our guide, our brother, our King, our friend, and numerous other titles. As you consider your own relationship with Jesus Christ, what words or titles come to mind? Are you comfortable calling him your friend? Do any of these titles seem out of reach?

The verses of this hymn suggest all of these interpretations. We can draw near to the Savior in a variety of ways, and they’re all important. This isn’t a buffet; it’s a wide-ranging invitation that covers every facet of our lives.

The chorus of each verse is a simple two-line refrain:

Take, oh, take, and cherish me,
Nearer, dear Savior, to thee.

When I read prophetic accounts of meetings with the Savior, I’m struck by how often they mention the power of his embrace. Jesus Christ loves us, powerfully and completely, and he invites us to come unto him—”Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you.” (D&C 88:63.) He wants to lift us and warm us and strengthen us and empower us. He wants to heal our wounds and take away our sorrows. He wants to give us everything he has, and wants us to become like he is.

He loves us. He loves you. Accept his invitation. Each day, nearer, yet nearer, to Him.